As we ponder such modern societal memes as “May the Fourth” and “Cinco de Mayo” and even May Day itself, we may contemplate the idea that all societies, all civilizations, have a shelf-life. It isn’t conveniently printed on the label: No “Use by 31 DEC 2021” or “Sell by 25 December 2022” but still, no society has lasted all that long, compared to human history.
The more complex the society, the more fragile it might be. Despite (or because of) our great technological advancements, damage the network and it will go down. A complex system of interlocking, interdependent parts can become a spider web, trapping the hapless inhabitants. Leaving us unable to obtain (and provide) what we need. An entire civilization, or major society, may not collapse completely, but an entire urban area, or an entire (sometimes vast) rural area, CAN drop into chaos.
Here are some thoughts on what can cause a society – over a large area, generally – can collapse. Perhaps we’ve even seen some in the last few decades that this has happened to. The first few are natural disasters – NOT manmade, but perhaps man-augmented by choices individuals in the society have made. Then we get to the nastier, manmade disasters.
- Meteor strike: we haven’t had a major one, not in an area with large-scale occupation and development, but… It is a matter of providence that craters like the one outside Odessa, Texas, or in Northeastern Arizona, or that mysterious one in Siberia, were not in densely settled areas, then or now. It doesn’t have to be a planet buster to create real collapse.
- Earthquake: Although in societies which are well spread out, an earthquake is fairly local, a strong earthquake (and sometimes its accompanying tsunami if in coastal regions) can strike down an entire civilization. Minoan culture in the Eastern Med is one possible example.
- Volcanic eruption: It is not just the immediate vicinity, ala Vesuvius or the East Indies, but the impact of a vast ash cloud in the atmosphere AND ashfall literally burying large pieces of real estate. We can picture Pompeii on a massive scale.
- Tsunami: closely related to earthquakes at sea or on the coasts, several societies have experienced localized disruptions even in recent years. The impact on Japan in recent years and some in the Indian Ocean are small compared to the potential. Especially in Western North America.
- Drought: this is one that we can almost definitely pin the collapse of societies to, including some in ancient history. Although almost certainly coupled with other pressures, most historians trace the collapse of the Anasazi (“Ancient Pueblo”) culture and society in what is now the Four Corners to drought. Others claim something similar for the Mayan Yucatan collapse.
- Pandemic: No, NOT the COVID-19 foolishness, nor HIV. A real and high-mortality pandemic, like Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death, can totally disrupt entire civilizations and cultures. Especially those under other stresses. As we have seen from the Pandemic Panic of the last 16 months, government actions are often the immediate cause of collapse.
- Blight and other food plant diseases: As in the Irish Famine, a disease that attacks a key food source (potatoes, rice, wheat, etc.) can trigger a famine which can cause society to collapse, sometimes for decades. Even less critical foods (bananas, coffee) can weaken a society.
- Human error: Not just meltdown incidents (Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island), but any human error leading to massive chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) contamination can cause society to collapse in fear and panic, as well as massive casualties.
- Economic and financial/monetary collapse: Usually blamed on such things as “greed” and “lack of government regulation” the real causes are massive government micromanagement and the stupidity (and greed, admittedly) of government officials. From the corruption of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the collapse of the Western Roman Imperium, to the Weimar Republic, the various crashes, panics, and depressions of the 1800s and 1900s, to modern Argentine and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), chaos and misery ensure.
- Terrorism: And not just the “nongovernmental” kind: Columbia, Venezuela, and Chile are examples of government-run terrorism. Today with potential CBR weapons, the threat of collapse is very real and creates great fear. But terrorism – especially governmental or quasi-governmental terror – is ancient: the Mongols in Russia, the Turks in Central Europe, the Catholic crusades in parts of France and the
- Rebellion and civil war: Major factions fighting to control a region’s government, a population rising up against their overlords, and even wars of secession have been some of the most common and devastating causes of collapse. Examples abound, and not just in modern times: Saul versus David, the internal Greek wars, the various Roman civil wars, Stephen versus Maud in England, and the like. But modern ones are the worst: the French Revolution, the post-WW1 Russian Civil War, the 22-year Chinese Civil War, Biafra, Cambodia, and many others.
- General War: External war is sometimes hard to separate from civil war, and is often even more devastating, as we’ve seen in Ukraine, the Balkans, Mesopotamia (Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan), Yemen, and more. We all know, and can visualize, how enough war leads to a society’s collapse.
- Electromagnetic pulse (EMP): is the newest of these causes, as it was not even possible less than a century ago. It is usually associated with nuclear explosions, but (as Carl Bussjager and others have written about) it can be induced, at least locally, in other ways. The greatest disruption though, is presently associated with high-altitude nuclear blasts rendering continent-wide swatches of electronics and the power grid useless.
All of these causes of collapse are possible: we humans have no control over the first five, little over the next two (except to respond badly), and are the reason for the last five!
And all of them CAN to some degree be prepared for, as long as we are not at Ground Zero or the equivalent. We as individuals, families, and communities, CAN plan for coping with collapse.
We can. Will we?